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Woolhope Woodheat: local power for local people

Jonny Kates
Jonny Kates, posted on 17.09.12

Blog comments3 comments

I recently caught up with Jon Halle - the director of Sharenergy Co-operative - to discuss one of their biomass co-op projects, Woolhope Woodheat. Sharenergy work with community groups to establish renewable energy co-operatives and their Woolhope Woodheat project is currently promoting its share offer, which has been extended until 28th September.

Thanks for speaking with us Jon. First of all, can you give us a quick overview of who Sharenergy are and the types of projects you support.

We're a co-op helping people set up renewable energy co-ops, working closely with groups to help find, define and delivery projects. Sharenergy is a spin-off from Energy4All, who pioneered the whole renewable energy co-op movement in the UK. Whilst they concentrate on larger wind projects, we tend to focus on medium-sized wind, hydro, solar, biogas, and now biomass technologies.

Your biomass project sounds particularly interesting. Can you tell us about the Woolhope Woodheat project?

Simply put, we are trying to link up two problems and make a solution from them. The first is that hard-to-heat buildings in Herefordshire are often heated with oil, or even worse with coal. This is expensive and has obvious carbon implications. As part of the Woolhope Woodheat initiative, we install a boiler at no charge to our clients and sign them up to a long-term heat contract. They just pay for the heat they use, at a guaranteed lower rate than fossil fuels.

Our first install is in an intentional community; a kind of co-housing set up. We've had a lot of interest from other big heat users such as farms, care homes, schools, and even large domestic users.

So where does the biomass fuel come from?

That's the second problem that we're tackling. A lot of woodland in South Herefordshire is either undermanaged or completely unmanaged. Woods which would once have supplied fuel are sitting uncared for. Woolhope Woodheat provides a market for the small size products from these woodlands - the woodchip fuel - making it economical for the owners of the land to bring them back in to management.

Sounds like a win-win situation for both your suppliers and clients - and of course the environment.

We're creating a market by linking up supply and demand, but we're also developing the infrastructure so that there's a supplier and client in the first place. Without us, the clients cannot afford the boilers and the woodland owners aren't yet "˜suppliers'. Then of course the environmental benefit goes hand in hand with that. Biomass can deliver significant carbon reductions as long as the sourcing is right. Somebody once criticised the project for offering "˜only' 50% carbon reduction. I actually think 50% is already pretty good and I'm confident we can do better!

Definitely! What about the benefits to the otherwise overgrown woodland that you're sourcing from?

Well there are biodiversity benefits from woodland management, which is why conservation volunteers are doing this sort of work all around the country every weekend. But we're also delivering social benefits. We're creating and saving woodland management jobs and, crucially, creating an opportunity for people to participate in the co-operative. At a time when the UK is considering things like Chinese built nuclear power, we think it's vital that the energy comes back in to the hands of the people!

Agreed! So what sorts of people do you find are investing in the co-operative?

I think the motivations are different for different people. Some like the local aspect; others support the woodland management side of the project. It's the first co-op of its kind in the UK and I think a lot of people are proud to be pioneers - like members of Baywind back in 1997. We've had over 100 applicants so far, with time for more still to join.

How are the financial returns on the share offer?

The project rates of return for members are good: over 6% averaged over 20 years and more than 8% equivalent if you're a taxpayer due to EIS tax relief. Nobody's in it for the money but a good rate of return means it's not just the well-heeled super-greens who can afford to become members. The Woolhope Woodheat share offer is open until the 28th September - it would be great if we saw people from within or outside the area supporting the project by becoming members.

Lastly, what's the long-term vision and mission - not just for Woolhope but for Sharenergy as well.

The Woolhope Woodheat project aims to move on to new boiler installs, although limited to probably ten largish boilers in order not to go beyond the local sustainable resource. We'll then do another share offer when we have a portfolio of installs lined up; hopefully in 2013.

We're already getting interest from people who want to replicate the project in their local areas. It won't work everywhere but Sharenergy is already starting work in Leicestershire and Norfolk. Aside from biomass, we've also got some fascinating hydro projects we're working with around the country as well as medium wind and solar projects.

It's an exciting time for us. We're currently hiring so if anybody thinks they have what it takes to implement the renewables co-op revolution, see the jobs page on our website.


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3 comments so far.

Blog comments Jim Smith, 06.11.12, 10:19

There's more to this story than the interview suggests. The project has been hugely divisive at the intentional community (Canon Frome Court), partly because of the exaggerated claims made by Jon and colleagues about carbon reduction of biomass boilers, partly because some members feel they're being ripped off financially by greenwash capitalists on government subsidies. And the project is reserving the right to source woodchip from anywhere it likes, contradicting the claims Jon makes in this interview. Maybe you'd like to look at both sides of the argument!

Blog comments Jon Halle, 06.11.12, 20:29

Re Jim's comment - It is quite true, unfortunately, that the project has at times been divisive - possibly because of misrepresentations of this nature. The claims made by the project about carbon reduction are visible to anybody on the project's website - pretty realistic, we hope. We are after all replacing a heating system largely fuelled by oil and coal with one fuelled by locally sourced woodchip. It's completely off beam to imply that WW has left itself free to source wood from just anywhere - the project is after all specifically set up to encourage new woodland management in South Herefordshire. The project is indeed supported by the Renewable Heat Incentive, which is a sort of Feed-in Tariff for heat - designed to support exactly this sort of move away from fossil fuels. The idea that the project is a capitalist ripoff is pretty laughable - or insulting, if you prefer. If Jim or anybody else thinks this they completely misconstrue the setup. The project has been put together by several enormously hardworking volunteers supported by Sharenergy, a social enterprise who have put in thousands of pounds and several years unpaid work. Members of the co-op are 150 members of the public who have typically invested £2000. They will hopefully receive a 6% return when averaged over 20 years (although the early years are lean and return is not predicted to rise above 4% until year 10!). The heat users at Canon Frome get heat at 20% less than fossil fuel prices, guaranteed - and if the co-op makes more than expected, the surplus is shared with them. Nobody else will make anything at all from the project - there are no hidden beneficiaries. It is in fact a mutual - the very opposite of a capitalist model. Jim is entitled to his opinion but we could not agree less.

Blog comments Bryn Higgs, 23.11.12, 15:50

As co-ordinator of the implementation group for this project at Canon Frome Court I'd like to say that my experience of dealing with Woolhope Woodheat is positive and straightforward. As for 'Jim Smith' there is nobody of that name living here at Canon Frome Court (past or present), nor associated with our Woolhope installation, nor the Canon Frome community as far as I am aware. We share with Woolhope Woodheat a commitment to use locally sourced sustainable wood chip as part of or commitment to reducing our carbon footprint.